Western Australia pilots networked neighbourhoods

The Western Australian (WA) state government is examining a Web application among 500 households that aims to “network” the neighbourhoods of WA residents.

Residents of the new Picton Waters Estate in Bunbury, in regional WA, are piloting Networked Neighborhoods, a Web site that helps people find others in their community with common interests.

The project was designed by the WA Department of Premier and Cabinet’s Office of E-Government, developed by Perth’s Beacon Technologies, and received US$518,000 funding from Microsoft Corp.

Each home in the new estate has a new PC and fibre-optic cable broadband access from ISP WestNet, courtesy of property developer Pindan.

“Networked Neighborhoods is about changing social structures,” said Jackie Gill, project manager at the Premier’s Office. “It’s about using the Internet to get people meeting locally by creating communities of common interests.

“We’re only six weeks into this but already we’ve got communities ranging from kids organizing to play soccer in the street to victims of sexual assault,” she said.

The Networked Neighborhoods Web site helps Picton Waters residents initiate and organize common interest communities based on their local area. To find a community, a user selects a special interest from a menu, which generates a list of communities. Selecting a community then displays contact and meeting information such as conditions and location.

While users can send messages to each other, Gill said, there is no long-term facility to archive messages, nor are there discussion boards or chat services, as the purpose of the project is to get people meeting in person.

Each resident also has a private home page which lists messages received, as well as a calendar to manage appointments. Messaging is based on permissions to prevent spam, Gill said, and users’ e-mail addresses and personal details are private.

Networked Neighborhoods could also help businesses, Gill said.

“Let’s say there’s a local plumbing community and you need to get your tap fixed,” she said. “You’d search for plumbing, opt into the community, choose your recipients, and send your message. Or, a plumber could advertise specials for part of the local area, and depending on your permission levels you might be able to take advantage of that.”

It’s in this area that the project relies on an always-on broadband connection, as Networked Neighborhoods is a 24×7 application, Gill said. The application could run on a dial-up connection, she said, but broadband served the project better by giving users permanent access to instant messages.

Networked Neighborhoods also aims to improve government service delivery by allowing citizens to choose a customized information service.

“An example is the Bunbury patient information centre,” Gill said. “We’ve created a community for this in Networked Neighborhoods.

“The government can profile members who opt-in and send specific types of health information to those members,” she said.

The catalyst for the project though was one of Gill’s own social experiences.

“This came out of my personal interest, coming from the bush to live in Perth as a single, working mom,” she said.

“There’s no traditional social structure, no one inviting you to picnics on the weekend. This was when I was project manager of Online WA communities. So I thought I should be able to solve this problem. It took five or six years though to get to the stage where we could build the technology.

“Phil Lord, a colleague of mine, was working on Online WA; the state government portal with channels [such as] health, tourism and the like. And we both thought, ‘How can we make this citizen-centric?’ And Networked Neighborhoods was the result,” she said.

The project will run until March, when the office will decide whether there is a business case to expand Networked Neighborhoods.

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